February 22, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.”
“You’re right; I was wrong.” That statement is made frequently in our midst. Or it should be. It is a statement that acknowledges error. The sentence declares that the words or judgment of the other individual were correct, and it admits that your own actions were not. That is what David does in Psalm 51 that you prayed this Ash Wednesday evening.
Most of you are familiar with what led to the composition of this psalm. David had sinned, but it took the Lord’s actions to convict him of that. Israel’s king, the Lord’s anointed, had committed adultery and had devised a plan to kill his lover’s husband. With Uriah out of the way, David took Bathsheba into his harem of wives. And nothing was thought of it. That was, until the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to confront David and his sin. “You are the man”—the sinful man—Nathan declares. And the prophet’s speaking the Lord’s judgment against David convicts him.
But David does not say: “Lord, you’re incorrect. There is no sin here. No fault is in me. I’ve done nothing wrong.” No, he says: “You’re right; I was wrong.” Or actually, he puts it much more profound words: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.” David practices confession in the words of the psalm: he speaks the same way about himself as the Lord speaks. The Lord had accused him of sin and David agrees with the factuality of that statement.
So you also do this Ash Wednesday evening. This night is a time of confession, of admitting the guilt that is in you and that you have committed, as the Lord has pointed it out to you. It is a time for you to say to the Lord: “You’re right; I was wrong.” There is no place for hiding or disagreeing. It is not a time for you to be defiant or proud. No, you are to speak the same words that David did: “Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.” You speak the same way about yourselves as the Lord speaks. And your act of receiving ashes shows the penitence that comes from believing what the Lord has said about your sin and mortality.
This confession—this “same-speaking”—that you make is based in the factuality of the convicting statements that the Lord makes against you, just as He did against David. But it is also spoken knowing the truth about other statements that the Lord makes. He has much to say. He does not only speak about your guilt and His righteousness. The Lord does not only talk about His holiness and your lack thereof. He also speaks about other aspects of His character, including His steadfast love and mercy.
These other statements that the Lord makes you have also heard this evening. You have had a prophet speak to you this evening, just as David had Nathan in his presence. You heard the Lord’s statements uttered through the prophet Joel: “’Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” The statement is made about the Lord’s character: His compassion and generosity, His willingness not to repay evil with evil, His desire not to have people suffer the calamity of His wrath.
This is what David was made to know. It is why his psalm authored in response to the divine confrontation that Nathan brought included these words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” His spirit was broken by Nathan’s words; contrition flowed from his heart because of the Lord’s conviction. And so David recalls what God had also revealed about His character: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” In those words, David also speaks the same way about the Lord as the Lord had spoken about Himself. David’s faith was in what the Lord had declared both about sin and salvation.
In faith, believing what the Lord says about Himself, you also speak this way. This evening is a time of confessing sins but also confessing the Lord’s character: “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” You rend your hearts as David did, and you turn to the Lord for salvation. You believe what the Lord has said and agree with it. You perform your acts of contrition trusting the Lord’s words that He will forgive. His words have come to you through the apostle Paul: “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” And your assent that this is true leads to your belief, your confession of faith in the Lord’s gracious will for you: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
So this evening, the words of David spoken in faithful response to the Lord’s statements have become your own. They flow from your heart to your mouth and from your lips to the Lord’s ears: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” You speak this way in acknowledgement of your sin, of the Lord’s merciful character, and of the salvation that the Lord offers.
And what is that salvation that He offers? It is the result of the work that the Lord performed for you. This is what you also have been told by Him through the apostle Paul: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Your deliverance is found in what the Lord has provided, in the help that He has given in this day of salvation. The Lord has spoken about your sin and about His gracious and merciful character. And you have also been told of His righteousness that is made to be yours because of Christ’s atoning work for you.
The sacrifice for your sins has already been offered. Reconciliation to God has already been set in motion. You are meant to receive the benefits of this. And you do, as you believe what has been spoken. It is yours, as you confess what has been made known: that the Lord’s grace and mercy were shown to you in Jesus Christ, that Jesus’ suffering and death way is how the Lord has relented from your disaster. This will be your confession on this evening—another “same saying”—as you will pray: “By the mystery of Your holy incarnation; by Your holy nativity; by Your baptism, fasting, and temptation; by Your agony and bloody sweat; by Your cross and passion; by Your precious death and burial; by Your glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter: Help us, good Lord.”
These words that flow from you are rooted in your belief in what has been revealed concerning Jesus: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” And so we will pray in words that express these truths that the Lord has revealed about us, about Himself, and about His salvation: “O God, You desire not the death of sinners, but rather that they turn from their wickedness and live. We implore You to have compassion on the frailty of our mortal nature, for we acknowledge that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Mercifully pardon our sins that we may obtain the promises You have laid up for those who are repentant.”
What you and I say on this night boils down to that basic statement: “You’re right; I was wrong.” We say to the Lord: “Everything that You have said and done is right, but that is not the case for me. You are holy, and I am not. You are righteous, and I am not. But You are also gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. This has been shown in what You did for me. So I lament my sin and acknowledge my wretchedness. And I trust that I will receive full pardon and forgiveness from You as You have promised. Let it be done to me as I believe.” Such is the purpose of this Ash Wednesday, this day of salvation.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.